The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Don't air the speech

James Fallows argues that television networks have clear precedents as well as unprecedented reasons not to air President Trump's speech tonight:

The challenge for the news media was to “make the important interesting,” rather than to search for the purely interesting. Car-crash footage, or the last seconds of a sudden-death playoff game, will always be more eye-catching than reports on a drought, or on sexual-harassment patterns, or emergency-room standards, or a million other topics. But things that are merely interesting will never lack for coverage. The definition of news is that it attempts to explain things that matter, things that a democratic society needs to know about in order to make sane decisions.

Donald Trump has been the most entertaining figure on the public stage since he came down the golden escalator in 2015. TV news, in particular, has therefore not been able to resist showing him (and his rallies) or talking about him. It’s the civic equivalent of seeing that 9-year-olds are guzzling down the Mountain Dew and asking for more Spam. Trump’s going live? Let’s switch to the White House! This needs to change.

Trump just lies. He doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care, about the difference between claims that are true and those that are obviously made up. (Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, has indefatigably catalogued Trump’s lies, at a rate of more than 100 per week.) Maybe 4,000 “terrorists” have been apprehended at the southern border? Maybe zero? Who can ever really know? Over the past week Trump has claimed that former presidents “privately” told him they supported building his wall. All four living ex-presidents have taken the unusual step of denying that they said any such thing.

The network executives’ position has a lot in common with that of the Senate Republicans. Each group knows with perfect clarity what Trump is actually doing. The Senate Republicans know that Trump is using the wall as a distraction and life raft. They know that because they had unanimously approved, by voice-vote, a plan to keep the government open, with no mention of the wall, before Trump panicked in the face of criticism from Ann Coulter and Fox News. They could pass that resolution again tomorrow—but they won’t speak up in public, so fearful do they remain of being criticized, too. For their part, the network executives know exactly what Trump will do if given air time. (Though they also realize that the formal Oval Office speech is Trump’s weakest venue. He’s not good at reading prepared texts, with his trademark ad-libs of “that’s so true” when he encounters lines he had clearly not seen before.) But they are giving it to him.

They were not afraid of criticism for turning down Obama. They are afraid about what would happen if they turned down Trump. You can think of lots of explanations. But the difference is clear.

I won't watch or listen to the speech live because I have other plans, and because Fallows is right. Why listen to half an hour of untruths coming from a person manifestly unfit to sit behind the desk he'll be sitting behind?

No comment, no response

The White House has simply stopped responding to basic press enquiries, not even bothering to issue a "no comment:"

“This is the least responsive White House press operation I’ve ever dealt with by far,” said Peter Baker, a veteran White House reporter for the New York Times and one of the co-authors of the story about Trump’s isolation. “There are certainly individuals there who are professional and try to be helpful when they can, and I appreciate their efforts, I really do. But as a whole, I’ve learned not to expect answers even to basic questions.”

The White House has had no response to stories large and small in recent days: reports that Trump planned to meet with Federal Reserve chairman Jerome H. Powell, whom he has criticized (no response to Agence France-Presse); the partial shutdown of the federal government (no response to Reuters or USA Today); a report by an advocacy group that wealthy donors gave $55 million to groups supporting his reelection, despite Trump’s stated opposition to such donations during the 2016 campaign (no response to Washington Post); Trump’s statement that former secretary of state Rex Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” (no response to CNBC); a piece in the Times reporting that a podiatrist may have helped Trump dodge the draft when Trump was a young man at the height of the Vietnam War.

At the same time, the White House seems to have all but stopped explaining Trump’s bizarre tweets.

I don't think this should surprise anyone. The current administration, abetted by the Republican Party, don't believe that the US Government works for anyone but them. They have shown for almost two years they don't value the basic values of civic engagement that a republic requires.

Regardless of which Democrats run in 2020, I think at least we can expect that their campaigns (and the resulting new administration) will at least issue a no-comment response.

Statistics reporting is hard

No, we have not wiped out 60% of all animals, FFS:

Since Monday, news networks and social media have been abuzz with the claim that, as The Guardian among others tweeted, “humanity has wiped out 60 percent of animals since 1970”—a stark and staggering figure based on the latest iteration of the WWF’s Living Planet report.

But that isn’t really what the report showed.

Ultimately, they found that between 1970 and 2014, the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 percent on average. That is absolutely not the same as saying that humans have culled 60 percent of animals—a distinction that the report’s technical supplement explicitly states. “It is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size,” the authors write.

CityLab's article includes math, that turns out not to be difficult in the least.

The report is still alarming, of course. But not in the way some science reporters seem to believe.

Enough Bothsidesism

The journalistic fetish with trying to find balance when none exists has cropped up today in reporting on President Trump's false assertion that he can end birthright citizenship by executive order. He simply has no such power; the 14th Amendment lays out the rule in plain English.

Of course, the president doesn't actually intend to draft such an order. He was lying. Anyone paying attention to the man for any length of time can see that, except perhaps his base, who tend to have a limited grasp of what the Constitution actually says. Josh Marshall calls the president's stunt "a completely ridiculous idea, a sort of clown-show trial-run at rule by decree."

But enter the Post, the Tribune, and countless other newspapers today who have (a) given this lie front-page attention and (b) fallen back on the "most experts agree" language that suggests any doubt about the executive's power to change the Constitution by simple order. No; this is absolute nonsense. (Technically, it was bullshit*, but a particularly ridiculous example of it.)

"Some legal experts" have suggested that birthright citizenship hasn't actually been tested in court; they're flat wrong, as the Post explained in a 2015 article on the subject:

As the justice who authored the majority opinion in U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark wrote, “to hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.” Had the decision gone the other way, Salyer said, instead of a nation of immigrants, America would have become “colonies of foreigners.”

(Yes, that means the president is totally Wong about his power here.)

Paul Krugman has also had enough of this kind of reporting:

False equivalence, portraying the parties as symmetric even when they clearly aren’t, has long been the norm among self-proclaimed centrists and some influential media figures. It’s a stance that has hugely benefited the GOP, as it has increasingly become the party of right-wing extremists.

You might have thought that the horrifying events of recent days would finally break through that norm. But you would have been wrong. Bothsidesism is, it turns out, a fanatical cult impervious to evidence. Trump famously boasted that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue; what he didn’t point out was that pundits would piously attribute the shooting to “incivility,” and that Sunday talk shows would feature Fifth-Avenue-shooting advocates and give them a respectful hearing.

This needs to stop, and those who keep practicing bothsidesism need to be shamed. At this point, pretending that both sides are equally to blame, or attributing political violence to spreading hatred without identifying who’s responsible for that spread, is a form of deep cowardice.

Hear, hear!

But alas. We still have this clown for 813 more days. Fortunately, we get a new Congress in 65.

* Read Harry Frankfurt's column on Donald Trump, written before the 2016 election. I imagine none of Frankfurt's opinions has changed.

Morning reading list

Before diving back into one of the most abominable wrecks of a software application I've seen in years, I've lined up some stuff to read when I need to take a break:

OK. Firing up Visual Studio, reaching for the Valium...

Hot pants in the White House

Hot, as in "on fire." The Washington Post has found that the President has made more than 4,200 false or misleading claims since taking office, half of them in the last six months. Moreover:

On July 5, the president reached a new daily high of 79 false and misleading claims. On a monthly basis, June and July rank in first and second place, with 532 and 446 claims, respectively.

Trump has a proclivity to repeat, over and over, many of his false or misleading statements. We’ve counted nearly 150 claims that the president has repeated at least three times, some with breathtaking frequency.

Almost one third of Trump’s claims — 1,293 — relate to economic issues, trade deals or jobs. He frequently takes credit for jobs created before he became president or company decisions with which he had no role. He cites his “incredible success” in terms of job growth, even though annual job growth under his presidency has been slower than the last five years of Barack Obama’s term.

On the other hand, this is the one category in which Trump truly is the best in class. Everyone has his talents, I suppose.

Lunchtime reading

Happy August! (Wait, where did April go?)

As I munch on my salad at my desk today, I'm reading these stories:

And finally, a bit of good news out of Half Moon Bay, Calif. The corporate owner of the local paper told them they had to shut down, so a group of townspeople formed a California benefit corporation to buy the paper out.

It's not an isolated heat wave

As London broils in 34°C heat today, New Republic's Emily Atkin asks, "Why are some major news outlets still covering extreme weather like it's an act of God?"

The science is clear: Heat-trapping greenhouse gases have artificially increased the average temperature across the globe, making extreme heat events more likely. This has also increased the risk of frequent and more devastating wildfires, as prolonged heat dries soil and turns vegetation into tinder.

And yet, despite these facts, there’s no climate connection to be found in much news coverage of extreme weather events across the globe—even in historically climate-conscious outlets like NPR and The New York Times. These omissions, critics say, can affect how Americans view global warming and its impact on their lives.

Meanwhile, the Guardian (who, one hopes, have air conditioning in their offices) are reporting that 87% of the earth's oceans have human-caused damage.

Go, us!

The intensifying battle against voting

The Republican Party has been stepping up its program of voter suppression in an increasingly-desperate effort to remain in power despite being in the minority. Having hitched its wagon to the older, whiter (i.e., diminishing) part of the electorate, they have few other options, since their policies offend and repel most of the country.

Josh Marshall and TPM Media have started a 10-part series looking at this problem, just as New Republic reports that more voters are being purged from registration rolls than any time in the past decade. Marshall:

In many ways, today’s battles over voter ID, felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and more are simply a continuation of a struggle that has been going for more than two centuries, with a clear line of continuity stretching through the battle for voting rights in the Civil Rights Era South. But there are key differences between past battles and those today, ones we can now see coming to the fore in the last years of the 20th century. Restrictions on voting have long been most effective against the young, racial minorities and the poor — constituencies that, increasingly over the last few decades, have voted for Democrats.

[C]hanging demographics created a simple and stark reality. Whereas attacks on voting rights did not used to clearly advantage one party over another, now voting restrictionism clearly advantaged Republicans and disadvantaged Democrats. The 2000 election with its tight margins and county officials peering at dangling chads through magnifying glasses focused Republicans on the importance of every single vote and more ominously how small shifts in the shape of the electorate could have dramatic results. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Republican politics was filled with a growing chorus of claims of “voter fraud,” usually focusing on minority and youth voting, and the need to crack down on voter fraud with new security measures (voter roll purges and voter ID) and increased prosecutions.

The series we are beginning today is made up of ten articles. They will include historical perspective, as well as extensive reporting on the current moment and policy prescriptions for advancing and securing voting rights against a tide that appears everywhere to be flowing against them. We will have pieces on felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, history going back to the 19th century and up through recent decades, voter ID laws, automatic voter registration along with numerous related issues. We will also have reporters in the field covering events as they unfold over the next five months. Our goal is to survey the full breadth of this critical topic, examining the history, the current range of threats and opportunities and, to the extent possible, helping readers understand the scope of the issue, its importance and avenues for positive change over the coming years.

The Daily Parker will be following this series with great interest.

Active voice, passive voice, weasel voice

The Economist's Johnson column last week (which I just got around to reading tonight) took on verb conjugations in journalism:

On May 14th, as Palestinians massed at the Gaza Strip’s border, Israeli soldiers fired on them, killing around 60 people. Shortly afterwards, the New York Times tweeted: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.” Social media went ballistic. “From old age?” was one incredulous reply. #HaveDied quickly became a hashtag campaign.

English and most other European languages have both an active voice (Steve kicked John) and a passive (John was kicked by Steve). Style manuals, including The Economist’s, generally deprecate the passive voice. It is longer, for one thing. For another, it is often found in heavy academic and bureaucratic prose. Inexperienced writers tend to over-use it.

But critics of the passive often confuse two different things: syntax and semantics. Syntax has to do with the mechanics of putting a sentence together. In Steve kicked John, Steve is the subject and John is the direct object. But in John was kicked by Steve, John is now the subject, even though he is still the kickee, and Steve is still the kicker.

So what the critics really meant is that the Times erred in using an intransitive verb.

I analyzed this not as an argument for a particular kind of prose, but as an argument for learning the vocabulary of the thing you want to criticize. Critics of the Times' headline aren't wrong; they're just arguing the wrong point. One can understand viscerally why the Times' headline got under the skin. But as in so much of life, people on one side argued feelings and people on the other argued correctness.

Until people hear what the opposition really wants to say—until people make an effort to hear it, I mean—we're going to keep talking past each other. That said, I want everyone to read Orwell right now.